Tag Archives: Michelle Rhee

Sargent Shriver’s Unlikely Contribution to Education Reform

Sargent Shriver

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“Make mine a Courvoisier!” ~ Sargent Shriver, as working men call out their beer orders at a Youngstown, Ohio tavern during the 1972 campaign.

You wouldn’t think so, but Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Geoffrey Canada, and the rest of the education reform crowd owe a great deal to Sargent Shriver.

The longtime liberal activist, Peace Corps founder and Kennedy appendage, passed away Tuesday after a long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease.  He deserves recognition as the charismatic, energetic political operator who, through his work with the Peace Corps and Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, re-aligned Democratic politics for generations to come.  In the process, Shriver embodied a liberal idealism and ideology that reflected his times–and alienated his more pragmatic family members of the Kennedy clan.

Yet few moments describe his shortcomings more than Shriver’s 1972 faux pas at Youngstown.

As he is campaigning as George McGovern‘s running mate, Shriver attempted to endear himself to working-class locals at the neighborhood watering hole.  Instead of calling for a domestic beer, Shriver shrieks out for a Courvoisier cognac, a drink more associated with the upper classes that so often exploited these workers.  In response, Congressman Tip O’Neill exclaimed, “”That’s it.  I’m getting back on the plane and going back to Boston. There’s no hope here.”  He was right: Nixon won the election in a landslide.

This episode, while largely comic, demonstrates a dangerous notion in the minds of idealistic, wealthy reformers–that singular action by individuals of means are solely necessary for social change.  It’s paternalism at best, and class exploitation at worst.

In the Peace Corps, Shriver was a singular force, acting as a manic, always-innovating autocrat.  All the while, he is impelling young students from America’s best families to spread American democracy and values worldwide to the poorest regions on Earth.  Of course, this didn’t mean that the world (a) really wanted them, or (b) actually benefitted from these meddling preppies teaching the local children how to read the Saturday Evening Post and listen to a Perry Como record.

The Peace Corps’ ancestors have arisen today, in similar guises of mildly-patronizing philanthropy:  Teach for America,  New York City Teaching Fellows,  the KIPP Foundation,  Bill Gates, Eli Broad and their money-tossing cronies.  These groups, some of their disciples and many of their graduates have that same notion of top-down management of social action.  They believe that the “best and brightest” must manage and control the “betterment” of America’s disadvantaged–largely without the feedback of those they purport to help.

Even Shriver’s contemporaries pointed this out.  Even though he managed government programs like the Peace Corps, Head Start, and the War on Poverty with almost missionary zeal, Shriver was still viewed as a political lightweight.  Even if he was a suave, likeable leader, he never seemed to connect with people at all.  The Youngstown incident is proof positive of this.

Furthermore, it is now seen, even by liberals, that Shriver’s programs were haphazard in organization, implementation and results.  The Peace Corps made some headway in terms of health care and education, yet groups such as the World Health Organization do a much better job and are not so annoying.  The Great Society, in the beginning, was a hodgepodge of programs that were created and added at will, without planning or organization.  Today, even advocates of the War on Poverty wished that Shriver was more pragmatic in these programs, often to create better results more efficiently.

Nowhere does Shriver’s influence reflect more than on education reform’s magnum opus, the documentary Waiting for Superman.  The premise is simple: students are looking for some magic-bullet program, or individual, to save American education.  In this case, the Shriver-esque solution is charter schools funded by philanthropic captains of industry–without any input from the education professionals that actually know how to teach children.

Sargent Shriver’s life and achievements, while commendable, give us a warning about our public policy.  His accomplishments left many more questions than answers to the problems they set out to solve.  Shriver’s top-heavy, paternalistic attitude and style hindered real progress in the serious crises that demanded his attention.

The same might be said for today’s education reformers.

So in Sargent Shriver’s memory, I’ll correct his mistake.  I’ll go have a beer.

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Some Free Advice to New NYC Schools Chancellor Cathie Black—from her friends at the Neighborhood

Cathie Black, New York City's new Schools Chancellor

Chancellor Black, welcome to America’s largest, most Byzantine, and most convoluted school system. We sincerely hope that during your tenure (should I use the word “tenure”?) New York City will also be among America’s greatest networks of learning.

We must admit, in all fairness, that many folks here in the Neighborhood were none too pleased at your appointment. Given the outward business-like nature of the Bloomberg regime (or dynasty, royal house, whatever), we expected a selection process free of the nepotism, cronyism and backdoor dealing that so typified the dark days of the past. Wishful thinking, of course…

Yet we digress. In an effort to bury the hatchet, we wish to open a true dialogue with our new capo. Our hope is that through honest, frank communication we can achieve the best results possible for everyone in our school system.

We won’t belabor you with the nonsense questions so many critics have leveled on you. That would be insulting your intelligence—a well-honed trait of your predecessor. As you settle into your first week on the job, however, here are some suggestions to make your work a little more meaningful:

Visit every school in the system—unannounced

The typical Chancellor’s tour involves an entourage of poobahs parading through a pristine campus while smiling, polite children entertain him with well-worn platitudes about their “reading levels” and “learning processes”. This usually takes place at schools with “KIPP”, “Mott Hall” or “Kappa” in their names, or with suffixes like –Academy, –Charter School, or Blankety Blank School for Success and Entrepreneurial Excellence in Waste Management.

This is not reality—not even close.

Make a point to visit schools in our most distressed neighborhoods, especially those schools that have been deemed either failures or in danger of closure by the DOE in the past. Pop in without the menagerie, and watch as teachers struggle with day-to-day tasks, principals balance inane initiatives with budgetary constraints, and parents tangle with administrators over discipline, zoning and programming.

Also take into account schools that are succeeding, but are bursting at the seams with students from closed schools in the community. Take a good hard look, and tell me if these schools will continue to succeed given the budgetary and population constraints on them.

Teach one class in each grade level—including Kindergarten

You can’t hide from it. We all know: you have almost no experience in a classroom, let alone any educational institution. You might already have it in your head that teachers are lazy and uneducated, do little with their time, and need the stick more than the carrot.

At the very least, that was the vibe we got from your predecessor—as well as his boss. Michelle Rhee certainly put her two cents in, we’re sure.

It won’t make up for it, but walking a short distance in the shoes of a New York City classroom teacher can do you a world of good for giving much needed perspective. Put up a bulletin board with substandard work so your superiors look good for their bosses. Push back art history or science for the umpteenth time to test prep for an exam six months away. Get hands-on with Global History, and its rushed, watered-down, one-year fiasco of a curriculum (and we wonder that our students know little about the world.).

But no cheating, now—you can’t teach at a private school or some Upper East Side celeb-charter academy. Like before, find those schools “In Need of Improvement” or “In Restructuring”, those wonderful NCLB phrases that taste like boiled Auschwitz.

Take the standardized tests the students take—all of them.

We can probably guess that like the mayor and his minions, you are ga-ga over standardized tests and their use in evaluating everything, from the teachers to the lunchroom floor. Oh, the joy of reducing everything to a number! It looks pretty on a mission statement, makes for great graphs that delight educational Neanderthals such as Arne Duncan, and make for great printing material and “culling of the herd.” (Just ask the Los Angeles Times).

Take the time to take each of the tests yourself, from the 3rd grade reading and math tests to the vaunted Regents tests at the high school level. As you plow through the material, ask yourself these questions:

(1) Do these things really measure the ability to read and function as an intellectual being? Will a “4” on the 5th grade ELA guarantee a slot at Harvard in a few years—or a slot on the night shift at McDonalds?

(2) If you find yourself struggling with certain tests (especially the science ones), imagine a kid with half your intelligence, a quarter of your attention span and a thousandth of your resources—a specimen we find a lot of in our system. Do you think he has the right supports to pass a test that you, a middle aged wealthy white woman, are struggling with?

(3) If the teacher is already hamstrung with a motley array of students in an overcrowded classroom with a lack of support and unsuitable standardized assessments to use, how can it be the only measure of a teacher’s success or failure? How can you measure a teacher’s effectiveness on one variable?

We’re pretty resigned to the fact that test scores will factor in teacher evaluation. However, it shouldn’t be the ONLY factor. Taking the tests yourself will convince you of this.

By the way, we’ll cut you some slack on those advanced science and math Regents. Most of us couldn’t tell Planck’s Constant from a plank at the Home Depot.

When cutting the budget, cut the fat, not the muscle.

Times are tough economically, we know. There will, inevitably, be cuts in funding from Albany which will trickle down to the schools themselves.

When you look at the budget for the coming year, remember that the school level—yes, that level that you should’ve experienced firsthand, by now—is the sinew and muscle of our system. Yet why has it been that the knife was drawn closest to this all-important skeleton?

Instead, turn your scalpel towards the people behind you in the mirror. Since you’re a smart lady, you may notice how we chuckle at the juxtaposition of DOE headquarters at the Tweed Courthouse. That courthouse was at the center of the city’s largest political scandal, and its named for the chief culprit. That insult aside, make sure that those people immediately around you are utilized the best way possible.

If not, you can definitely lay-off at the top in a professional manner (We remember the show where you talked about laying off workers effectively—nice job.)

Give Principals real autonomy—in discipline.

Principals bear the brunt of the abuse as our schools are slowly becoming all-encompassing nation-states that are built ass-backwards—a body like an Athenian and a brain like a Spartan. A lot of the hot talk is around whether principals should be given more leeway to hire and fire personnel at will, as well as more control over the school’s purse strings.

Now remember the little bastard in the classroom you were in that was so defiant he would make any classroom cringe with fear? Good luck getting him placed in a different setting. The process for removing or transferring students due to behavior problems is long and convoluted: even teachers who diligently follow up with phone calls and letters find that administrators have their hands tied as well.

So how about this: let the principals admit and expel students as the need arises, especially at the elementary level. We’re not talking about cases where the child acts up due to academic struggles. It’s about the stone-cold bad kids that have reached the end of their rope with students, teachers, parents and principals; those kids that pose a true threat to learning for everyone.

Wondering how to use closed school buildings? Use them for programs that move these “bad kids” in a more productive direction than a regular classroom would allow. If he keeps up into high school, then he can be expurgated without a fuss.

Despite what the knuckleheads think, children are left behind, sometimes by choice. It even happens in (gasp!) Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan—those bastions of academic excellence. You think every kid in Asia is on the board of directors of a car company, construction conglomerate or electronics consortium? Morons are the same the world over.

Want Teacher Quality? Stop the half-measures and go after the source.

It’s something we harp on here at the Neighborhood almost as if in a mantra: the goal is to acquire and RETAIN excellent quality teachers. Don’t listen to Rhee and the morons at TFA who think that alternative certification programs are the “silver bullet” that will finally eradicate the achievement gap.

Teaching gets better with age, and the TFA’ers don’t stick around long enough to reach that level of maturity (if they were ever that mature to begin with).

You want to get good teachers? Make teaching a respectable profession to graduates from the top universities. The only way that can happen is (a) the salaries are commensurate with other professionals. This can only happen if we have (b) teacher training programs at the university level that are as competitive and as rigorous as professional schools and higher academia.

The education programs at New York’s universities must stop becoming diploma mills for any two-bit dipstick that wants the summer off. As schools chancellor, you are in a unique position to correct this problem.

All the education programs love the deals they have with the DOE to provide training, professional development, seminars, etc. Hold their asses to the fire with these sweetheart contracts until there is evidence of major overhauls in their education departments. It’ll be a long process, but we’re willing to bet that out of it will come high-quality teachers who will stay in the system for a long time.

Just remember to pay them adequately, otherwise they will go elsewhere. That’s the price you pay for intelligent, well-trained teachers: they usually won’t stand the bullshit for long.

Stop the “Fear Culture” of communication at the DOE

This may be the most important task you can accomplish as Chancellor.

For a long time, the draconian regime of your predecessor has rhapsodized about the need for greater collaboration, communication and team-building. Yet in private, especially amongst the administrators of all-too many buildings, a culture of fear and suspicion has arisen. Complaints, suggestions, and even legal union grievances have been met with back-stabbing, reprisals and vengeful acts that demonstrate the basest venality…

(Sorry, got poetic with the vocabulary. You following all this, Chancellor?)

You, and only you, can put a stop to this. If we can see you leading by example, taking advice, compliments and criticism professionally and courteously (from teachers, parents, administrators and even students) and offering a sense of safe and fruitful dialogue, it would be a wonderful first step in creating real cohesion within our system.

I keep going back to him, but it bears repeating. Your predecessor cared little about public opinion, nor the opinions of those who toiled under him. He was often curt and even combative in interviews and press conferences. In last year’s testing fiasco, he even pointedly showed up late to community meetings in the ultimate display of cowardice.

Chancellor Black, you seem like a smart, eloquent woman. Only by using that intelligence to understand the system, its flaws, its accomplishments and its future can you succeed. Look at Rhee: she was even more stubborn about her dictatorial ways, and look at where it got her.

We bust our butts for these kids every day. The concerns addressed here have been shouted, mentioned, whispered, e-mailed and texted for many years now. It is high time that we finally find the common ground to create viable solutions to our educational problems.

Chancellor Black, we at the Neighborhood wish you the best of luck in leading this great school system. Thanks for hearing us.

PS. Did Joel leave any booze in the desk? You may need it every once in a while. Hope he left the good stuff.

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The AEI Report on High School Social Studies: Our Review of the Findings

For the past year, the Neighborhood has railed about the attack on social studies by those in the education establishment. 

Last week, a new report has data to back our claims—and its coming from an unlikely source.

Few people would peg the American Enterprise Institute as anti-establishment—unless that establishment was driving a hybrid, collecting welfare checks, having gay intercourse, aborting babies and growing funny crops in a hydroponics lab in the basement.  The conservative DC think-tank counts among its fellows Newt Gingrich, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton and Lynn Cheney: hardly a bunch that would rock the boat.

AEI’s education team, furthermore, is certainly no rabble-rousers, either.  It’s headed by Frederick Hess, who’s a good buddy of my favorite educational dictator, Michelle Rhee.  He also co-directs AEI’s Future of American Education Project, which involves Rhee and KIPP cofounder Michael Feinberg—what do they chant at the beginning of those meetings, Mike?

Yet amongst little fanfare, AEI’s Program on American Citizenship has recently released a report titled High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do. In it, researchers Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett studied high schools and teachers and reported essentially on the state of social studies in this country.  While their findings on content seem self-serving—especially in assessing attitudes towards American society and government—their view of social studies as a subject is spot on.

It is a disturbing picture, yet it gives credence to what we have been saying for years: social studies is suffering in America thanks to the NCLB establishment.

Farkas and Duffett studied a national random sample survey of 866 public high school social studies teachers, 245 Catholic and private school social studies teachers, and three focus groups.  Naysayers would point out that social studies teachers hardly constitute an unbiased data group on the subject.  Yet they are the ones most involved, most invested—and most attuned to the deficiencies in their subject area.

The strongest areas of the study are the findings about social studies writ large, about student learning, and standards of content knowledge.

In terms of the subject as a whole, the study backs up our claims.  45% of teachers say their school district treats socials studies as “an absolutely essential subject area.” This is opposed to 43% whose districts considered it unessential, or “important” at best.  45% claim their curriculum has been downgraded due directly to NCLB pressure, although 39% claim to be “holding their own”.  Even more disturbing, 70% of teachers say that social studies classes are of a lower priority due to the pressure of statewide math and language arts tests—even though 93% of teachers want social studies to be assessed in the same way.

Furthermore, these finding are not homogenous to all schools.  68% of private school social studies teachers feel that social studies is considered essential, as opposed to 45% of public school teachers.  Private school teachers also claim to have more control over the pace and content of their curriculum (86%), as well as a more nurturing school atmosphere for the subject.

(Wait a minute, aren’t private schools also subject to NCLB pressures?  What gives?)

The quality of teaching and learning is also of concern, according to the study.  Only 20% of teachers, and 36% of students, value the teaching of facts, dates and major events as an essential part of social studies instruction.  Only 56% of teachers can state that their students have carefully read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  64% value teaching the intricacies of the federal government, such as checks and balances, federalism, etc.  63% find knowledge of historical periods important.   Even though the current trend is toward understanding concepts and ideas in social studies, they are difficult to understand without the meat of facts, dates and events.

What’s more, we may not even be sure students are learning.  No more than 24% of teachers say they are “very confident” that their students will graduate knowing all they need to know about social studies to continue to higher education or the working world.

So on a macro scale, the Farkas and Duffett report paint a bleak picture of a subject under assault from an education establishment bent on testing progress, where teachers have lost focus of essential knowledge and students lack concrete understanding.

We knew this already.  The charts and numbers help our cause, though.

What doesn’t help is the study’s assessment of teacher attitudes and values, as well as the criteria for social studies knowledge.  The AEI education team bases knowledge of social studies on what they call the Twelve Concept s of Citizenship, which are:

  • To identify the protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights
  • To have good work habits such as being timely, persistent, and hardworking
  • To embrace the responsibilities of citizenship such as voting and jury duty
  • To be tolerant of people and groups who are different from themselves
  • To understand concepts such as federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances
  • To be knowledgeable about periods such as the American Founding, the Civil War, and the Cold War
  • To follow rules and be respectful of authority
  • To see themselves as global citizens living in an interconnected world
  • To understand economic principles such as supply and demand and the role of market incentives
  • To develop habits of community service such as volunteering and raising money for causes
  • To be activists who challenge the status quo of our political system and seek to remedy injustices
  • To know facts (e.g., location of the fifty states) and dates (e.g., Pearl Harbor) (AEI Report, Appendix 2)

The problem, of course, is that this basket of items is both too broad and too narrow.  While knowing about the Bill of Rights is important, it could be folded into a larger standard about American citizenship and responsibility.   Some of these are so broad that they lack any meaning. To know facts and dates?  What facts and dates?   To be knowledgeable about different historical periods is okay, but you list three periods that are already broad without including the rest, which is just as important and also pretty hefty in it of itself.

Also, some of these tenets are just dripping with ideology.  Conservatives love law and order, we know that.  Most people, in fact, prefer a safe and secure society.  But there’s a better way to word such sentiments without sounding like a 50’s principal with a crew-cut and tortoise-shell glasses.  Good luck teaching inner-city kids, or any adolescents for that matter, to “follow rules and be respectful of authority.”  My kids would likely hurl you out the window.

The same ideological bent pervades the questions about teacher attitudes and values.  One finding was that 83% of teachers believe that the United States is a “unique country that stands for something special in the world.” 76% say that high school should impart respect for military service, and 82% think it is important for students to “respect and appreciate their country but know its shortcomings.”

These numbers, by the way, align almost perfectly to the attitudes of ordinary Americans.  Glad to know teachers are normal, loyal patriots and not the bomb-throwing, lazy Bolsheviks that are depicted by some members of (gasp!) AEI itself.

None of the values studied are particularly galling, at least to me.  Our servicemen and women should be respected, and few would argue that teaching American history must include diverse points of view.  I’m even an advocate of American exceptionalism, to an extent.  Yet if you look at the questions about attitudes and values, one could surmise that the questions were crafted to elicit certain responses.  Like our students, the format and the content/context of the questions shape the data we receive from them.

So the AEI report isn’t perfect.  Maybe they got so wrapped up in progressive education that they forgot to be neo-cons.  Or maybe AEI head Arthur Brooks warned Farkas and Duffett that they better tack right if they know what’s good for them (just ask David Frum).

Regardless of the ideological bent, the report still has value as a window on the sorry state of social studies in this country.  Amongst America’s public schools, social studies is being downgraded more and more, thrown into the pyre as a sacrifice to the gods of scan-tron sheets and number 2 pencils.  Students are lacking even the basic underpinnings of our history and government, even as they leave high school eligible to vote—a frightening prospect indeed.

Which leads me to an essential question, in fact the essential question of the study: “What are teachers trying to teach our youth about citizenship and what it means to be an American?”

My answer: Whatever fits into the pitiful 45-minute block in between assessments and test prep.

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